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How to help families help their adolescent daughters

Children may be the first in the family to gain a formal education, and be pursuing jobs unheard of a decade ago – especially daughters who, in the process of taking on non-domestic roles, are breaking down more traditional gender norms. Through growing access to digital technology, adolescents are also increasingly exposed to new ideas and ways of communicating with their peers and the wider world.

But with these increased opportunities come bigger and more complex threats to adolescents’ well-being, for which many parents may be unprepared and under-supported to handle. In Chiro, a rapidly urbanising town in Ethiopia, younger adolescent boys told us that older boys use wi-fi to ‘download games, normal films and sex films’. They then ‘call us over and show us the sex films’, explained one boy, who added that most of his peers now regularly watch pornography. Some of the boys included in the research explained that they are given no guidance by trusted adults on how to safely use and engage with new technology – whether it be in school, the community or at home – and that this was at times quite stressful.

On June 1 the UN observes Global Day of Parents, which emphasises the critical role of parents in child rearing and recognises their primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children. The UN notes that family-oriented policies can contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals 1 to 5, including achieving gender equality. This is a hypothesis that the GAGE programme is planning to test through robust longitudinal research in eight countries around the world.

The GAGE conceptual model, informed by a growing evidence base, underscores the importance of directly targeting parents and extended family members with programmes that promote changes in attitudes, behaviours and practices in the home, as well as those that encourage positive parenting. The GAGE programme is researching a range of emerging initiatives which help families to engage more effectively with their adolescent children’s development and to see them through a more gender equitable lens, including:

  • Parents’ groups or home-based support – such as support groups, parent-teacher associations in schools, or health extension workers who visit homes.
  • Positive fatherhood campaigns – like Promundo’s MenCare programme which educates men about equitable fatherhood and caregiving practices for long-term change
  • Cash or-in kind transfers for education – Robust evidence suggests that where parents lack the resources to practically support their daughters, financial and in-kind transfers can be powerful levers to incentivise parental support for girls’ education.

It’s critical for the long-term well-being of both girls and boys that programmes targeting parents and other caregivers, help them to avoid the gender discriminatory attitudes and practices of the past. Mums, dads and caregivers –and arguably especially in urban areas where exposure to new technologies is higher – must also be equipped with the soft skills to be able to actively guide their children through adolescence and the existing and emerging challenges they may encounter on the road to adulthood.

This may mean helping parents – many of whom may face limitations in terms of basic literacy as well as technological literacy – to encourage their daughters’ aspirations while supporting them to negotiate the hard realities of the world safely and responsibly. Economic and education opportunities need to be considered along with the potential dangers posed by migration to a new urban centre or different country. There’s also the digital divide to navigate and how best to balance the excitement of connecting to peers through new technologies, whilst knowing how to cope in the face of potential exposure to cyber bullying and graphic content. Where adolescents are wanting more independence than is safe, it will mean helping parents set clear boundaries and to provide guidance around their children’s behaviour, even where their children are literate and they are not.

GAGE’s research will be critical for policy makers and programmers working with families to help them to better support their daughters to imagine their own futures and safely pursue tomorrow’s  new opportunities.